USAmerican author and socialist activist John Catalinotto granted an interview to Investig’Action to talk about his new book, “Turn the Guns Around”. We discuss the resistance to the Vietnam War from within the US army and historical soldier revolts that were decisive in revolutionary uprisings, turning “a weapon of oppression into a tool for human liberation”, and what progressive forces can learn from this.
Protest of the American Servicemen’s Union
You have published a new book, “Turn the Guns Around”. Can you give us a general idea of what it’s about?
“Turn the Guns Around” is a history, and it’s a history in two ways. In one way it’s a history of the period between 1962 and 1975, when the US was carrying out a colonial and anti-communist war against the Vietnamese people. And during that war, a movement that was opposed to war, that was opposed to racism, grew up within the US armed forces. This caused an enormous amount of problems for the Pentagon and for the officers of the military. It forced them to really change a lot their policies. This movement played a role in the victory (defeat from the US government’s perspective) in Vietnam. Of course the greatest sacrifice and the greatest struggle was waged by the Vietnamese people themselves, but the opposition inside the US military played a role in that final victory.
The other way is that I brought up other historical events where movements inside the military led to actual political or social revolutions, or combinations of those, which included the Paris Commune, the two Russian Revolutions of 1917, the revolt of the German North Sea Fleet in 1918 and the revolt inside the Portuguese military in 1974. And I did that in order to provide for new generations of activists in the United States an understanding of what the capitalist state is, and of the relationship between the military and the state. So it’s a history that combines those two ideas.
There was a well-known opposition to the Vietnam war in “civilian” contexts (e.g. University campuses), but you explore a lot the opposition from inside the army, for instance the American Servicemen’s Union (ASU). Can you explain how it came about and what it did?
The opposition was first seen on the campuses, with organizations like Students for Democratic Society. But these were all people of the same age as the young men in the US military. And all the youth rebellion, the antagonism between generations, the struggles that took place, especially the struggle of the Black Liberation Movement of the mid to late 1960s, all of those spread to the military too. They were not separate from it. You could argue that the military was more concentrated working class, whereas on campus you had people from more privileged sectors of society. But the situation in the United States was much more economically secure for people in those days, even for the working class.
But the opposition began to show, with individuals in the military in 1966 and 1967, and it immediately spread. And the ASU, which is what our political tendency (1) organized, and which played a very big role in the GI movement, was not all that there was either. There was a very broad, spontaneous movement. There also was a movement of people who set up what they called “coffee-houses” near military bases, where GIs could come and get away from the military discipline. All this was going on at the same time. The ASU, as a union inside the military, had a special role, because even though it was called a union, it was an organization that had its own structure, and therefore was in competition with the chain of command of the military. The military depends upon its chain of command, and on the low-ranking soldiers going out to fight and die. Or fight and win, they hope. But in order to function, the military needs to have that kind of discipline. If they have a different organization that is representing the soldiers then it’s a competition for the state.
Two examples from the ASU newspaper “The Bond”. The speaker on the right in the right picture is John Catalinotto
How should we understand this competition?
You should see it as a class struggle that takes place inside the army. If the ASU has the loyalty of the mass of the troops, they can stop the battle. In some places, some units of the US military did refuse to go into battle. And this can also be seen by the composition of the movement. It had some individual officers, who were war opponents, but the ASU was made almost entirely of privates, low-sergeants, etc. There were no professional soldiers and no officers.
What were the consequences/reprisals against the ASU and everyone else inside the army who opposed the war?
Right, because it wasn’t just the ASU that was picked on. Anybody who did any act of dissent might get severe punishment. But the punishment was not systematic in all places. A lot would depend upon the general in charge of the military base in question. It also changed during the course of the war. For example, there were two young men who gave out leaflets calling for a union, I think it was the end of 1967, or beginning of 1968. And they got 3-5 years in prison. Other people, a couple of years later, punched their officer, and they got a month in the stockade before getting thrown out. It varied, and it depended on the timing a lot. Because once you got to 1971-72, the army’s way and the military’s way of handling dissidents was more to try and get them out, rather than try to punish them.
By then there was a lot of pressure on the Pentagon…
Yes, indeed. The war was tremendously unpopular among the civilian population by that time, 1971. And the government of the US was beginning to wind down the ground war from the point of view of the number of US troops. They were pulling troops out of Vietnam, so they no longer needed to feed bodies over there. So the troops would come home from the war, and they might have 3 or 4 months left in their military service that they were supposed to serve in the US, but the military would cut them out early. Because if they kept them around the base, they would cause problems for the officers and spread their anti-officer attitudes to the new recruits.
In 1968 a group of black soldiers at Fort Hood refused riot duty. John Catalinotto and the ASU helped organise their defence. (Photo by Ellen Catalinotto)
You also mentioned that there was an intertwining between the anti-war movement and the black liberation movement. There was this famous case of Ali refusing the draft. Can you talk a bit about that?
Ali had a big impact on the soldiers. This was in April 1967, the same month that Martin Luther King made his first anti-war speech, then Ali refused the draft. It had a big impact throughout. It had a big impact on the young man (who happened to be white) who was the leader of the ASU, Andy Stapp. It had a bigger impact even on the black population, who in general were more opposed to the war than the whites were at the beginning, but everyone was after a while. But also, black people were directly involved in a struggle for their rights in the United States. There were rebellions going on in the major U.S. cities. And the most exciting organization was the Black Panther Party, which partly got its reputation because they carried guns in a demonstration in Sacramento, California and they confronted the racist police. So a lot of Black veterans of the military, and Vietnam in particular, looked towards the Black Panther Party as something that they might want to join.
One of the elements that you gather in the book are letters from GIs. What do they show?
The ASU put out a monthly newspaper of 4 pages, sometimes 8, called The Bond. And 1 or 2 pages would be of letters from GIs. And it was always the most popular segment of the paper. I’ve picked out three of them and I’ll read you some excerpts, I think they will give you an idea. I published about 80 or 90 in the book, we published about 1200 in the course of the life of the ASU, and we must have received 10 times as much. It used to be the most exciting part of my day, running over from my job during lunch hour to see what kind of letters had come in! And these letters also show how the situation is evolving in Vietnam:
Letter from a Vietnam GI (source: “Turn the Guns Around”)
Now this second one is interesting because the 196th was once on the frontpage of the New York Daily News as being a unit where 60 troops refused to go into the field when they were ordered to.
Letter from a Vietnam GI (source: “Turn the Guns Around”)
There’s one more, a rather short one, it shows you even another kind of progression:
Letter from a Vietnam GI (source: “Turn the Guns Around”)
In your first answer, you talked about how these soldier revolts have been crucial in revolutionary uprisings. Can you expand a bit on that, maybe focusing on one of the examples?
The one uprising that went to a conclusion, changed the state power, making a political revolution as well as a social revolution and carrying it through to the end, was the Russian Revolution. In that case, the February revolution, whose 100th anniversary is in two months. It started on international women’s day, March 8 (a different calendar was being used in Russia at the time, so it was February then), with a strike of the women workers in Petrograd (St. Petersburg). The next day, the men joined. By the third day, the police were starting to fire on the workers, and the czarist regime also called out the garrison of troops against the workers. But the troops were very demoralized by the war, and there was a lot of contact between the workers, especially women, and the rank-and-file troops.
The Petrograd Soviet in 1917
This was mostly a spontaneous development, although there are always conscious elements in the background. The important moments happened when the garrison saw police shooting at the workers. The troops fired on the police. Then this group from the garrison went over to the revolution. But once they went over, they had to win over all their friends, because if the uprising didn’t get pushed to conclusion they could get killed, or put into jail forever. So they kept winning over people to their side until finally the whole garrison came over to the revolution and that was the end of the czar.
Striking women from the Putilov factory in Petrograd, in one of the events that led to the February 1917 revolution.
That started a period of 8 months of developments where there was a much more conscious organizing of the soldiers and sailors, on the part of all the revolutionary parties but mainly the Bolshevik party. The sailors in Kronstadt, an industrial and naval base island very close to Petrograd already wanted to make a socialist revolution in March! But it took a while and slowly the bulk of the military was won over to be on the side of the Soviets. So this played a very important role. Of course the workers were leading the revolution in Moscow and Petrograd, but the soldiers and sailors were essential to it.
The military is the guardian of the state, or the capitalists, but you are saying that in these moments of uprising, these revolts can work swing the correlation of forces to the other side?
Yes, that’s what happened in these scenarios. Everyone can figure out how it might happen in the future. Or try and see how it might have happened in other periods or situations than the ones I wrote about. The state is what keeps the capitalists in power. Part of that state is also ideological, in control of the media and the minds of the people, but in the end they rely upon force. And it’s the force of the police, the courts, the jails and in the end, the big imperialist military, which is a worldwide police force and a worldwide state apparatus that protects property. But part of that depends on the consciousness of the individuals inside it.
In the examples that I brought up, and some other examples, when there is contact either between the rebellious masses and the rank-and-file of the military, this has an effect on their consciousness. Or in the cases of Vietnam and the liberation movements in the Portuguese colonies, there was a long-term wearing down of the colonial military, which was brought about because the colonized peoples kept fighting and fighting, making life miserable for the colonialists. At the same time there was a political development going on. In Portugal this led to a coup organized by the junior officers that overthrew the fascist government and opened up the prisons, freeing all the political prisoners, trade unionists, etc. It opened up the door for a lot of important conquests for the working class in the period that followed.
You’ve mentioned the events in Russia, but at the end of WWI there was also a rebellion that brought the end of the monarchy in Germany…
In Germany, the rebellion started with the sailors, who were ordered to fight in Flanders in what they believed was a suicide mission. The sailors believed that the admirals, who were the most right-wing elements in what they called the pan-Germanic officer movement, just wanted to make a grandiose last gesture, an idea of “we’re going to go down fighting”, and the sailors didn’t want to commit suicide. So they rebelled, and when they rebelled they were punished for it, and in order to stop being punished they had to keep the rebellion going. They would go into a town, and the government would send the army against them, but instead of repressing them, the army would meet with them. They’d have a discussion then the army would join them, and they would liberate another town in Northern Germany. They liberated Hamburg and then Munich in the south. Finally they got to Berlin, and the Kaiser abdicated. So you can imagine a situation developing like that in certain places today, although you can’t predict it. The changes in the consciousness of people are very hard to predict.
Going back to Portugal, one of the appendices you have in the book is a very interesting pamphlet that Amílcar Cabral (2) wrote to the colonial army, in some sense to his enemy. What’s his message?
I wanted to include this pamphlet specifically because it showed that the colonized peoples understood, and the leader of their revolution understood that it was possible to reach into the colonial power’s army, as there was a class struggle going on there. These soldiers were not fighting for their own interests, or for their families’ interests, or for their class interests. They were fighting for fascist and for the rich in Portugal, actually for England and the United States as well. So he directed a pamphlet, a long one, which I translated to make it available to the US movement. It essentially has these messages:
- We are going to fight until we win
- If you fight against us, you might die
- You are not fighting for your interests, you should not be fighting for the rich in Portugal
- If you come and join us, we’ll protect you and we’ll make sure you’re safe
So those were the main messages, and then it ends with a call “Look soldiers, be courageous, do the right thing. Don’t fight for the masters, don’t fight against our people”. I really think it’s a great message.
Amílcar Cabral, leader of the liberation movement in Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde (PAIGC)
Cabral also refers to some people who had already done it, and this happened during the course of a long war, in the Portuguese colonies of Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique and Angola. One third of the Portuguese young men went into exile rather than be drafted into the military, while people that went in also resisted throughout. For example, in Álvaro Cunhal’s (3) writing at the time, he describes what was going on, and this was very much like what happened in the early stages of the struggle in the US military during the Vietnam war. The soldiers would get together in the mess hall, where they ate, and they would refuse to eat food. Or they would throw things and break stuff, this kind of resistance. Except in Portugal the government insisted on pursuing the wars to their conclusion, and the army grew from 79.000 in 1961 to 218.000 in 1974 in a country of only 9 million. Two-thirds of them in Africa, with young conscripts required to serve overseas for two years, compared to one year for the U.S. troops in Vietnam. Eventually they brought the war back home with the 1974 rebellion and coup, which completely changed life in Portugal, and was a great inspiration for everyone around the world.
Does this internal rebellion work as another battlefront for the military?
Yes, it’s another big battle, a class struggle. And Cabral, a leader of an African liberation movement, understood that an important part of the movement was to reach out into the Portuguese army and look for the dissidents, try to encourage them, even saying “come over, we’ll protect you, we’ll get you out of here”. This is his enemy he’s talking to. “We have to shoot you if you’re going to shoot at us, but if you come over we’ll protect you”. The Vietnamese did the same kind of thing with the US troops. They would have an agreement with the US troops, where they would say: “We’re going to be fighting over here on the right, you go over to the left, we won’t bother each other”. And that happened a lot toward the end of the war.
Is this a kind of battle that a structure like the military is less prepared to face? Because as you said, it is very reliant on the chain of command.
In the last chapter of my book I go into this a little bit. The US military has changed very much how they organize the army. During the Vietnam war they had a mass army, they had 3.5M troops in the armed forces. Of course they were all over the world, but they had at some point 540.000 troops in Vietnam. Nowadays, instead of 3.5M troops there are 1.4M troops in the US military. It is much more a professional military, and because it’s a much more professional military, the developments can’t take place exactly the way they did during the Vietnam War.
There has been opposition, e.g. against the Iraq War, there have been a lot of individuals who have come out in opposition, very brave people like Chelsea Manning who exposed all of what was going on. But there hasn’t been the same kind of attitude of complete and widespread opposition the way there was in the 1960s and early 1970s. The Pentagon officers – loyal to U.S. imperialism — who commented on what was happening during the Vietnam war were saying that military was on the verge of collapse and that something needed to be done. So they had to reorganize and make it a more professional military. The problem that it brings to them is that they don’t have a military that wins anymore. They can create enormous amounts of damage with their air war, by attempting to maneuver one grouping in an oppressed country against another, creating all sorts of pain, as they have in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, etc. Their military-industrial complex still makes money from the war. But they have not, in any of these places, established anything like they used to in the colonial world: a stable, puppet-government that continued to feed profits back to the imperialist metropolis.
Captain Salgueiro Maia addresses the crowds in Lisbon on April 25, 1974. He was one of the leaders of the junior officer movement that overthrew the fascist dictatorship.
So what was their solution?
They started outsourcing. For example they hire mercenaries from other countries. The food is also no longer done by the military, it’s brought by a private company, which makes money, but it’s not part of the military. They hire people to drive trucks and stuff like that, as they did in Iraq. So just like there’s outsourcing in the industrial world, they’re outsourcing in the military. And they are also more reliant on technology, just like in industry. They have drones. Why do they use drones? Because if you have a drone you won’t get even one pilot shot down. You might at worse lose the plane. But even there, there are drone pilots who have objected to being used that way and who have refused to do it. So there’s always the chance of a change in consciousness taking place, and it depends a lot on what’s going on in the society in general, as well as what’s going on within the military.
You have a very nice line which is that these movements managed to “throw a wrench into the war machine”. What should leftist or progressive forces take from this and how should they move to do this again?
I’ll say what I hope is that the new generation of leftists can take from it. And that is that the state apparatus is not omnipotent. There are weaknesses in it. You have to find the weaknesses and think about them all the time. You have to look for the opportunities. You have to really build a party that does it, because individuals are not going to do it on their own. And you look for the opportunity the way we saw an opportunity in 1967, we saw this Andy Stapp confront the military, write a letter saying “long live Ho Chi Minh”, and get attacked by the military. And we immediately sent as many people as we could to help him. Because we saw that there was a possibility of opening up this kind of struggle. That’s what people need to be doing now. I don’t know that it’s going to take the same form as it did in 1967. Maybe if there was a large scale war with China, or even Iran, and they had to reinstate conscription…
By the way, some of the officers, who are pro-US military, are discussing this, talking about the idea that maybe it’s better to have conscription. Instead of having a professional army, it would be an army closer to the people, so it would get more support from the people. They say that more troops are needed to carry out all these wars. In the situation of a mass army in a very nasty war, you can reproduce something like what happened in the past. But today, the opportunity to break up the state may occur in some other arena. You need to have people who are consciously thinking about it, looking for the opportunity, and ready to step in when it takes place. And I do not know how, and exactly when, that is going to happen. I do not have a crystal ball, I just have history!
Forgiveness Ceremony Unites Veterans And Natives At Standing Rock Casino: "Many of us, me particularly, are from the units that have hurt you over the many years. We came. We fought you. We took your land. We signed treaties that we broke. We stole minerals from your sacred hills. We blasted the faces of our presidents onto your sacred mountain. When we took still more land and then we took your children and then we tried to make your language and we tried to eliminate your language that God gave you, and the Creator gave you. We didn’t respect you, we polluted your Earth, we’ve hurt you in so many ways but we’ve come to say that we are sorry. We are at your service and we beg for your forgiveness".
Could this arena be, instead of a war waged abroad, a war waged at home? For instance, the police state, the repression of black communities, or the recent confrontations surrounding the North Dakota pipeline. Could that be a possible scenario?
Right, that’s a possibility. For example, in 1968 there were soldiers who refused riot duty against the Black population. And there’s even an example this year, of something like that, I bring it up at the very end of the book. I bring that up as the other possibility of a break in the military. That is if the military has to repress worker struggles, popular struggles, black liberation struggles, etc.
In North Dakota, the struggle to stop the North Dakota pipeline was very popular. Of course it was a struggle that was led by the indigenous nations there, but it also had a lot of support in environmental movements, there’s a joining of interests for stopping this pipeline. And it got support from a lot of veterans. So at the last confrontation that took place there were a couple of thousand veterans out in North Dakota facing the police and the National Guard. So you can imagine a situation developing over there where the military refuses to be used. Even some of the local sheriffs and law enforcement agencies were objecting. They didn’t like spending all their time doing repressive actions against the population. The rulers count on racism against the Black population, or in this case against the Native people. If the movement can break down racism, then the young troops won’t want to repress a movement they might sympathize with. So that’s another possibility of breakdown in the military. That’s going to be something to pay attention to.
(1) The Workers World Party, a revolutionary socialist party formed in 1959 that has consistently fought against imperialism and for the liberation of oppressed peoples, both in the US and around the world.
(2) Amílcar Cabral was the founder and leader of the PAIGC (African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde), a liberation movement in the Portuguese colonies of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, and he is remembered as one of the most prominent African Marxists. He was assassinated in 1973 by agents of the Portuguese political police PIDE.
(3) Álvaro Cunhal was the secretary general of the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) between 1961 and 1992, the most influential figure in the party’s history.
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